Transgender Day of Visibility and Being “Out”

Today is the sixth annual International Transgender Day of Visibility. The holiday, started in 2009 by Rachel Crandall of Transgender Michigan, acts as a happier counterpoint to the sobering Transgender Day of Remembrance, which mourns the lives that we have lost. TDoV is a celebration of trans* identities and an opportunity for trans* people to be open, to be proud, and of course, to be visible to the world around us.

Visibility is at the core of my speaking work, yet it has been a struggle in my own life. I think this is true of most trans* people. Some of us have too much visibility. We even have a term for it in our own vernacular: being “clocked” means being noticed or called out as transgender when one is trying to blend in. For trans* people who are trying to fly under the radar (note that I don’t say “pass” — I’ll explain why I hate that term in a later entry), visibility can lead to discomfort, fear, or even violence. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, are especially vulnerable to hate crimes — put simply, for some trans people, visibility can be dangerous.

My struggle is with the opposite end of the spectrum: a lack of visibility. Broadly speaking, trans people are often invisible to the world at large. In 2015, most Americans know someone who is gay, or can at least name a gay celebrity; although trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have seen a flurry of attention in the past year, many people are not yet familiar with trans folks in their personal lives. Politically speaking, this is a challenge. The saying goes “you can’t hate someone whose story you know” — meaning that once we form a personal connection with people who are different from ourselves, it’s easier to understand and accept them. The opposite, sadly, is also true: it’s easy to hate (or fear) people you don’t know.

What this means for trans folks is that if people don’t know about us, it’s hard for them to empathize with us, or to resist the media caricatures of transgender people. This is why TDoV is so important for our community: the more people we can reach and connect with, the better our chances of gaining legal protection from discrimination and violence, which we sorely need.

But visibility also has a more personal side. Like most trans people who tend to be read as cisgender, I struggle with the question of when to disclose my gender identity. I don’t consider this “coming out,” because I have never been “in” — from the time I first discovered my gender identity, I have been very open and honest about it. The existence of this website means that my gender and history will never really be a secret, and I celebrate that. However, most people don’t Google me the minute we meet, so there are plenty of people in both my personal and professional life who simply don’t know that I’m trans. It’s not that I’ve kept it from them. It just hasn’t come up.

So when, if ever, do I tell people that I am transgender? My general policy is to be myself and carry on conversations without self-censorship. If something I say or do confuses someone, I’ll explain my gender identity; if it doesn’t come up, it probably isn’t relevant to the discussion. But what about days like today, when I want to speak up and identify myself even outside of a trans-related conversation?

In honor of Transgender Day of Visibility, today I started both of my classes by telling the students about my transgender identity. I gave them a brief introduction, then disclosed that I am trans and encouraged them to seek out articles or other media about trans* people, and to ask me questions if they are curious. I was met with a warm, positive, and curious response — a perfect TDoV outcome. I hope that all of my trans* and cis friends — and everyone reading this — will take a moment today to learn about trans* people, and share that moment with someone else. Spread knowledge, and stamp out hate — and let’s keep TDoV going all year long.

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